Fans of things with wings frequently flock to Westport, where they are richly rewarded with a wealth of wonderful wild birdwatching at their fingertips. Mayo is a bird lover’s paradise, and west Mayo is blessed with many a fabulous vantage point for watching all manner of birdlife. Here are five birding sites in or around Westport where you can perch yourself and have fun watching the feathered folk and their antics. Happy twitching!
Five Great Birdwatching Spots Near Westport
1. The Point, Westport
A much-loved sunset-watching spot, The Point overlooks Clew Bay and is a fantastic site for seeing water birds. Watch out for geese (barnacle and light-bellied geese), waders (dunlin, oystercatcher, curlew, turnstone, bar-tailed godwit, redshank), ducks (shelduck, wigeon, teal, mallard) and gulls (common and black-headed), as well as little egret, heron, cormorant, kingfisher, little grebe, merganser and mute swan.
There have been some sightings of rare or unusual birds here too, including spoonbill. A White’s thrush that was seen and unfortunately shot near Westport in 1865 is now in the Natural History Museum, where it keeps a Squacco heron that was spotted at Westport Quay in 1912 company. To get to The Point, head towards Westport Quay. Turn right at the Towers, and follow the Quay past the Clew Bay Heritage Centre to the car park, which lies just beyond a football pitch (possibly the most scenic in Ireland).
Just north of Westport, past Newport, lies the beautiful seaside village of Mulranny. With its large salt marsh, long golden beach, thriving machair system and heather-swarthed hills, Mulranny’s obvious natural assets attract a huge amount of birds – and birdwatchers. In winter, light-bellied brent geese can be seen on the mudflats near the causeway bridge at high tide, along with little egret, cormorants, shags, common tern, common gull and kittiwake viewed from the beach. Snipe and lapwing also make an appearance, as do healthy numbers of waders, such as curlew, oystercatcher, sanderling, bar-tailed godwit, redshank, greenshank, ringed plover. During the summer, Arctic and sandwich terns can be seen plunge-diving for fish close to the beach.
An elegant tern was recorded in Mulranny back in October 2001. This Pacific species has wandered (elegantly, of course) to western Europe on a number of occasions only, and this is its only confirmed sighting in Ireland.
3. Clare Island
Take a 20-minute ferry ride from Roonagh, just south of Westport, and you’ll find yourself on Clare Island, which is world renowned among bird lovers for its nesting sites on its spectacular sea cliffs on its northern and western sides.
Clare Island boasts Ireland’s fourth and newest gannetry. A pair of gannets started breeding on a low stack in 1975, and breeding has continued ever since despite the unusually isolated and exposed position of the site. Gannets can often be seen feeding between the island and Roonagh pier on the mainland.
The cliffs provide breeding sites for kittiwake, fulmar, guillemot, great black-backed gull and black guillemot, as well as a small but typically charming Atlantic Puffin colony. Peregrines and ravens breed on the cliffs too, as do chough – in fact, the island is a site of international importance for chough. Barnacle geese use the cliffs as important winter feeding grounds.
Clare Island also supports tree sparrows, rock doves, lapwings, curlews (non-breeding), swifts, skylarks, stone chats, meadow pipit, wheatear, grey wagtail, reed bunting, sedge warbler, linnets and grasshopper warbler. Sure, if they stayed on the ground long enough, you’d be only tripping over the birds there are so many!
Achill was once one of the Mayo strongholds of the majestic golden eagle, which became extinct in the county in 1912 – but only after giving Croagh Patrick its pre-Christian name, Cruachán Aigle, or Eagle Mountain. Now, they can occasionally be seen flying here again, thanks to a reintroduction programme in Donegal.
In northern Achill, the main birdwatching sites are Lough Nambrack, Sruhillbeg Lake, Lough Doo and Sruhill Lough (Dooinver), where cormorant, mute swan, whooper swan, wigeon, teal, mallard, coot, lapwing, curlew, common gull, great black-backed gull, black-headed gull, little grebe, grey heron, moorhen, dunlin, curlew, redshank, greenshank, herring gull, tufted duck, scaup, goldeneye, oystercatcher, great northern diver, red-breasted merganser, turnstone and ringed plover can all be seen.
Head to Keel village to see great northern diver, cormorant, grey heron, mute swan, whooper swan, wigeon, tufted duck, teal, mallard, oystercatcher, redshank, greenshank, turnstone, black- headed gull, common gull, herring gull and great black-backed gull in winter. Close-by, Keel’s machair supports cormorant, mallard, oystercatcher, ringed plover, curlew, sanderling, dunlin and turnstone.
Rare sightings include crossbill, Radde’s warbler and, back in 1964, a rare vagrant all the way from the Americas – a yellow-billed cuckoo.
5. Ballycroy National Park & Wild Nephin Wilderness
Among the many natural bounties of west Mayo is the vast and beautiful wildlife refuge that is Ballycroy National Park & Wild Nephin Wilderness. Its 15,000 hectares include blanket bog, heath, low mountains, lakes and river, and support an incredible diversity of birdlife – from Greenland white-fronted geese (winter visitors that feed on bog flora like white-beaked sedge) to golden plover and merlin hawks.
Year-round, visitors can hope to see red grouse, dipper, woodcock, ravens and raptors, including peregrine falcons, kestrels and sparrow hawks, while during the winter the Greenland white-fronted geese, whooper swan, golden plover, hen harrier make an appearance. To find out more about this amazing wilderness, visit www.ballycroynationalpark.ie.